Cosmos and Culture: How Astronomy Has Shaped Our World

Science Museum, London Until 30 December 2010

Thomas Harriot's magnified map of the Moon. Credit: LORD EGREMONT/WEST SUSSEX RECORD OFFICE

Amid the commemoration of the Apollo landings, another lunar anniversary has just passed quietly. Four centuries ago, on 26 July 1609, the English scholar Thomas Harriot pointed his recently acquired 'Dutch trunke' at the Moon and drew what he saw.

He thus became the first person to record astronomical observations through a telescope, a few months before Galileo Galilei did the same. But unlike Galileo, who was struggling to feed a family on a lecturer's salary and angling for the patronage of the Medicis, Harriot had made his fortune and had no need of fame. He was already a distinguished mathematician — a renowned algebraist who had corresponded with Johannes Kepler on the physics of rainbows and who had produced a body of work on the physics of motion.

By 1609 Harriot had other reasons to avoid the limelight. His patron, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, was a cousin of one of the gunpowder plotters who had sought to blow up the English Parliament in 1605, and Harriot himself was imprisoned and interrogated for his connection. His papers were lost after his death in 1621 and not rediscovered until 1784, still at Percy's estate. So he remains little known.

Two of Harriot's drawings of the Moon, one of which shows its seas and craters, plus his notes on the moons of Jupiter, are on display in London's Science Museum until the end of 2010 as part of the exhibition Cosmos and Culture.

They are accompanied by a first edition of Galileo's Sidereus Nuncius of 1610, a 1496 edition of Ptolemy's Almagest and first editions of Nicolaus Copernicus's De Revolutionibus Celestium Orbum (1543), Kepler's Astronomia Nova (1609) and Isaac Newton's Principia (1687). Other highlights include Chinese astrological figurines, made during the Tang dynasty in the first millennium BC, and the 2-metre-long telescope through which William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus in 1781.

The exhibition's subtitle is 'How Astronomy Has Shaped Our World'. But any compelling stories that could be told about the way that astronomy forges links between artisan and genius, amateur and professional, royal patron and government agency or pure science and popular culture are lost here through poor display. The fine Harriot drawings cannot be viewed close up, and labels are provided through a touch-screen display that is situated far from the pieces it describes.

Because everything is thrown together in an arbitrary fashion — those mighty books rub shoulders with a pile of sci-fi paperbacks, and the Tang-dynasty figures sit near an astronomical edition of the board game Monopoly — this exhibition is both a must-see and a missed opportunity.